After attending the Getty Museum and seeing the Mapplethorpe (which is pronounced maple-thorp apparently) exhibit, I chose one photograph that evoked strong emotion.
The name of the photograph is “Ken and Lydia and Tyler” and it depicts two males and one female of varying racial backgrounds and ethnicities. The models are nude and their faces and heads are cut out of the picture showing only their bodies in a sort of embrace. The two men embrace the woman by holding each other’s hands in front of her vagina.
In the Getty’s description of the photograph, it is said that Mapplethorpe is drawing inspiration from a classic Greek sculpture know as “The Three Graces.” The Getty says that Mapplethorpe chose the models of different races to “achieve a range of skin tone” and to demonstrate “new, nonbinary interpretations of gender, race, and sexual preference.” In the original Three Graces sculpture, there are three women who are the daughters of Zeus and are named Thalia to represent youth and beauty, Euphrosyme to represent mirth, and Aglaia to represent elegance.
In pretty much every critique of this picture, I found that Mapplethorpe was being applauded for his innovation and his intersectionality by bringing in both men and women and by making them different races. The more I looked at the reactions to the picture, however, the more surprised I became. I kept asking myself, am I the only person who thinks this photo is misogynistic? Am I really the only one that sees this as a depiction of a woman’s sexuality being stifled by men? Or is it that I’m just trained by habit to see these types of faults?
Before I continue on my so-called feminist rant, let me make something clear. I understand that Mapplethorpe is an artists who preferred men and as such enjoyed photographing them in sexual ways more so than women. But does that give him a pass to use men to cover up the female sexuality when he does show women? The woman in this photograph is completely nude, with her attractive body and full breasts on display. But the one thing that is at the core of her sexuality — her glorious pussy — is being covered, by men no less. Am I to dismiss this because Mapplethorpe is “more than the controversy?” Does this not hint at the way women are portrayed in media time and again in our society?
Women are constantly being objectified. We are scantily clad in magazines, are overly sexualized in movies, and are demeaned in music. But as soon as a woman shows that she actually has a sex drive, that her sexuality is a real aspect of her being, she is called a slut, whore, etc. It is literally the oldest story in the book. The thing I find most troubling about this photograph is that her vagina is being covered by two men. It’s so blatantly problematic I honestly cannot believe no one is talking about it.
Mapplethorpe can be quoted saying, “Art is an accurate statement of the time in which it is made.” In the 1980’s, I’m sure this photo would not be seen as controversial, especially in relation to Mapplethorpe’s other work (i.e. bullwhip asshole). However, in the time of third wave feminism which encourages female sexual empowerment, I see red flags until my eyes glow. It’s important when analyzing art to analyze through your point of view. It is not always necessary to take into account the intent of the artist. Mapplethorpe may not have “meant” to stifle the female sexuality but the fact is that he did in my opinion and I will not apologize for how I feel just because I may be reading too much into it.
The cultural oppression of female sexuality may not be with malicious intent or with any intent at all. The suppression may come from “the implicit cooperation among large numbers of people working together to stifle female sexuality without full awareness of what they’re doing” (Baumeister, Twenge, p. 1). Mapplethorpe may not have known what he was doing and may have been simply photographing what he liked, but it is impossible for me not to connect it to the way that women are oppressed even in today’s supposedly progressive society.
I will leave you with this quote that leaves me still loving Mapplethorpe even though he infuriates me at times — “My whole point is to transcend the subject, go beyond the subject somehow, so that the composition, the lighting, all around, reaches a certain point of perfection.”
“Victoria and Albert Museum.” , Digital Media Webmaster@vam.ac.uk. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.
Baumeister, Roy F., and Jeane M. Twenge. “Cultural Suppression of Female Sexuality.” Review of General Phsycology (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
“Robert Mapplethorpe.” Famous Americans RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2016.